In August 2014 when the then newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi had named Ravindra Narayan Ravi as the government’s new interlocutor to the Naga talks, a number of groups, most significantly, the NSCN-IM — the government’s main negotiating partner — raised objections. The appointment as interlocutor of a person “well known for his antagonistic approach to the Naga issue”, said the NSCN-IM, casts doubts on the government’s sincerity towards the talks. It required the intervention of the Nagaland governor of that time, P B Acharya, to clear the air on the appointment. Acharya assured critics that the newspaper articles that Ravi authored, and were the source of the NSCN-IM’s ire, were written before the new government came into office, and that as interlocutor he will implement the prime minister’s vision and take the peace process forward.
In a statement issued a few days ago, the NSCN-IM blamed Ravi for destroying the momentum of the talks. It accused him of trying to turn the clock back by reframing the conflict as a law and order issue, and not a political dispute. In retrospect, those writings could have foretold the differences that have now hamstrung the negotiations.
Ravi, who has also been the Governor of Nagaland for the past year, was not a public figure until his retirement from the Indian Police Service in 2012. A 1976 batch officer, he served in the Intelligence Bureau, where he developed expertise on Northeast Indian affairs. He wrote his now famous articles on the Naga conflict during the brief time between his retirement and his assumption of post-retirement official positions.
In the articles published in 2012 and 2013 Ravi was scathing in his criticism of the peace process and of the role of two of his predecessors in the position of interlocutor: K Padmanabhaiah and R S Pandey. He called them “rent-seekers” — a term usually reserved for those seeking personal benefits from public office. By dealing with the Nagas “as if it were a homogenous collective with common aspirations”, they set the Naga talks on “a perverse trajectory”. He accused them of acting as no more than the NSCN-IM’s “marketing agents” and “selling its larger-than-life profile to Delhi”.
Ravi’s main grouse appears to be that the Manmohan Singh government was then negotiating with only the NSCN-IM — “quintessentially an entity of Tangkhul tribes of Manipur, having little resonance with other Nagas notwithstanding its pan-Naga rhetoric”. Drawing on his knowledge as an Intelligence Bureau official, he waxed eloquent on “the intricacies of the Naga polity — comprising over 25 tribes, each a proud owner and inheritor of a distinct culture, language, tradition and geography, espousing a distinct world view, falling within the broad rubric of the Naga family”. There is, however, ample evidence that many Nagas aspire to Naga unity, and they view those tribal loyalties as residues of a premodern past and an obstacle to Naga solidarity.
Narratives of Naga nationalism have long been imbued with the idea of a Naga homeland that includes contiguous areas in a number of Northeastern states, and even parts of Myanmar. The belief that the conflict cannot be resolved without addressing the issue of integrating the Naga-inhabited areas is widely shared among Nagas, though non-Nagas living in those areas do not generally share this goal.
“The Indian government acknowledges the unique history of the Nagas and their situation.” NSCN-IM leaders have repeated this claim with remarkable frequency over the many years of the peace process. No one can claim that the meaning of the phrase “unique history” is self-explanatory. It has the kind of ambiguity associated with diplomatic language: Formulations that conflicting parties find acceptable only because they are open to more than one interpretation. But it also embodies a commitment to pursue agreement: To work together and find a common language that all sides find acceptable, which can be achieved only by resolving the conflict.
The source of the phrase can be traced back to a joint communiqué that NSCN-IM General Secretary Thuingaleng Muivah and former Home Secretary K Padmanabhaiah signed in Amsterdam on July 11, 2002. However, it became etched in Naga public memory only after Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to the state in October of 2003. In his speech at the civic reception held in his honour in Kohima, Vajpayee said: “It is true that, of all the states in India, Nagaland has a unique history. We are sensitive to this historical fact”.
The carefully crafted phrase serves as a reminder of the painstaking efforts of countless civil servants, and political leaders — across the party divide — as well as of leaders of various Naga organisations, to build bridges over contested narratives and create the conditions for negotiations to end India’s oldest armed conflict.
Policymakers in the 1990s appear to have concluded that the impasse in the conflict called for a shift in strategy. It was becoming more and more obvious that the NSCN-IM, the faction that declared the Shillong Accord of 1975 a sellout, and a betrayal of the Naga cause, had emerged as a serious political force precisely because it stood for Naga unity. Seen in this context, arguments that identities centred on tribes are somehow more “real” than the Naga identity are reminiscent of colonial era intelligence reports that referred to nationalist politicians in terms of their caste status: Nehru was a “Kashmiri Brahmin”, Jinnah a “Khoja Muslim”, Malaviya a “Malwa Brahmin” etc.
One can speculate that by signing on to the idea of Nagas having a “unique history”, officials and political leaders intended to signal acknowledgement that (a) the characterisations long favoured by security bureaucrats of the Naga political struggle as a separatist insurgency or a terrorist movement that makes false claims to Naga unity, are inaccurate and (b) rejecting those epithets is a necessary condition for negotiations based on mutual respect. Those are significant achievements that should not be allowed to wither away.
In August 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, known for his keen eye for political optics, wore a Tangkhul Naga shawl to the signing ceremony of the Framework Agreement. Notwithstanding Ravi’s gripe about the NSCN-IM’s appeal being limited to the “Tangkhul tribes of Manipur”, the “unique history” formulation — with its bow to the territorial imaginary of the Naga nation — evidently was still the guidepost anchoring Indian policy.
The ground realities could not have changed so dramatically in the past five years to require the rejection of the unique history formulation. While the talk of returning to the jungle by NSCN-IM militants may be more bombast than a genuine threat, the risks of Nagaland and adjacent areas going back to a downward spiral of violence and counter-violence should not be underestimated.
At the same time, Ravi’s diatribe against the peace process was not without some empirical basis in ground realities. There were legitimate questions to be asked about the wisdom of a policy of negotiating only with the NSCN-IM, treating it as primus inter pares among Naga factions with a veto power on key issues. That a more nuanced negotiating strategy is now emerging is a positive development. But the fundamental question about who all the stakeholders in the Naga conflict are, still needs a satisfactory answer, one that is based on an in-depth mapping of the conflict. Only then can we expect peaceful dialogue and patient negotiations to end the conflict and bring about a durable peace.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 22, 2020 under the title ‘The Naga narrative divide’. Sanjib Baruah is professor of Political Studies at Bard College, New York. He is the author, most recently, of In the Name of the Nation: India and its Northeast.
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